Anima: Gate of Memories is a stumbling patchwork quilt of game ideas, but with enough imaginative twists and surprises to differentiate it from the pack. Ambitious, uneven, and determinedly independent, Anima: Gate of Memories is a third-person action-adventure developed by a small team working in a challenging genre for all but the deepest pockets. While there’s enough value to recommend its Nintendo Switch port, its liable to frustrate those who remain unfazed by its charms.
The world and story elements of Anima: Gate of Memories are sourced from a series of successful, anime-inspired Spanish tabletop RPGs with a passionate fanbase, and it’s their second venture into adaptation. 2011’s Anima: Ark of Sinners was a poorly performing 2D platformer for the Wii, and some of its assets and design look to be informing the follow up, which has now deployed on the Switch. The narrative follows a cadre of fantastical, hyperbolic characters, with players controlling the Bearer of Calamaties and her personified book companion Ergo Mundus.
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For anyone who played Nier back in 2010 this pairing will probably sound quite familiar, in addition to several other aspects of Anima. Much like Nier, the game initially presents as a conventional third-person action game like Bayonetta or Devil May Cry, but soon reveals some decidedly different intentions, with a balance between combat, story-telling, and puzzle solving. Numerous anachronisms pop up (a memorably weird example is an out-of-the-blue rendition of the Reading Rainbow theme song), and a faintly mature story-line incorporates concepts like child negligence and a psychotic hermetic artist. Again, these grimdark inclusions recall some of Nier’s more disturbing and unexpected plot threads, but Anima seems to grant equal admiration for the Dark Souls series; some of its puzzles and item descriptions recall a desperate attempt for a Souls-like sense of enigmatic meaning, but fares poorly in this homage.
About that narrative: Anima: Gate of Memories is packed to the rafters with plot, primarily delivered in conversations between The Bearer, Ergo, and the five boss characters (a.k.a. “Messengers”). This results in a lot of haplessly dramatic purple prose, abysmal voice work, and overbearing lore-heavy apocalyptic nonsense. Burdened with bizarre naming conventions and an aspiration for theatrical gravity, the player will likely be completely lost, though a complete digestion of that plot isn’t required to follow along. It all speaks to the Anima tabletop RPG’s lengthy history that there are such a deep pool of references to divine, but for a newcomer to the series it’s often opaque to the point of parody.
The action is additionally hard to swallow at first, with a poorly staged tutorial section, but eventually makes sense after a few confused hours. As you fill out your skill tree with each experience level, you’ll gain new moves and spells to swap into each character’s loadout, but you’re always limited for slots and will never be able to equip every skill at once. The Bearer and Ergo prioritize magic and physical attacks, respectively, and share stamina and magic gauges, but retain their own respective health bars. There’s also an array of weapons and equipment to find, but they all amount to simple stat increases, and not a single one affects your moveset or visual look; it’s the kind of design oversight that hints at content cut for development time.
So what does Anima have going for it? Well, after you’ve gotten your bearings with the combat, it’s an intriguing mix of projectile-dodging and linked attacks, whereyou can swap between Ergo and The Bearer at certain points mid-combo to pull off some flashy, satisfying flourishes. Most enemies rely on projectiles, so dodges will have to be activated with precision to avoid most attacks and retaliate unscathed, a rhythm that you’ll slowly acquire, and which will render most fights manageable but tough. There’s also just as many puzzle sections, with one of the best ones requiring a thorough investigation of collected lore documents, and also some controller-twisting platforming sections (an all-too-common snag in this genre). While the game features a hub area, somewhat similar to The Nexus from Demon’s Souls, there’s entirely too much backtracking through completed areas.
Anima: Gate of Memories is an independent project by all accounts and evidence, and it shows. Typos, disparities between voiced audio and text, and even some light bugs remain in the game, effectively carried over from its PC version. None of these are game-breaking obstacles and, with time, they might even begin to seem somewhat charming. The graphical textures, while generally low on detail and on the lower-quality end for this type of game, belie some imaginatively crafted levels. The Anima world isn’t all consistently characterful throughout, but standout portions showcase a design sensibility that is reaching for something outside of the norm, and might even be considered impressive with a little more polish and care.
Despite its incongruities and narrative stumbles, Anima will eventually gets its hooks in you. Much of the game is spent pursuing five bosses through considerably differentiated environments, and each of these big encounters is decidedly unique, making them feel like worthy milestones. There are some well-guarded secret items and bonus lore documents to uncover, hidden or blocked off by challenges as rewards for tenacious players, and each Messenger has a thoughtfully bizarre (but poorly-voiced) backstory, with a sense of closure withheld unless you find them all. It’s a smart decision for a game like this, because players who will want to barrel through it as quickly as possible have the option to do just that, but others looking for a better payoff can spend their time experimenting and exploring.
Much like its Nier inspiration, Anima swings for the fences, and while it’s not as comparably successful overall, its ambition is apparent and infectious. An appreciation for certain anime tropes (including a problematic “upskirt” aspect to The Bearer’s character design that is obviously intentional) is probably required, but players looking for an alternative to AAA third-person action-adventure games may discover a bargain-priced hidden gem in Anima: Gate of Memories.
Anima: Gate of Memories is available on the Nintendo Switch now, and comes bundled as a package with its side-story/sequel Anima: The Nameless Chronicles. BadLand Publishing provided a copy for review.